President Obama has given a speech in which he announced changes in the National Security Administration’s program of collecting and data-mining phone and internet records. Here are the changes, which seem pretty minor. After the jump, an analysis of where things stand.
President Obama said Friday, in his first major speech on electronic surveillance, that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.”
Obama placed restrictions on access to domestic phone records collected by the National Security Agency, but the changes he announced will allow it to continue — or expand — the collection of personal data from billions of people around the world, Americans and foreign citizens alike.
Obama squares that circle with an unusually narrow definition of “spying.” It does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat.
In his speech, and an accompanying policy directive, Obama described principles for “restricting the use of this information” — but not for gathering less of it.
Alongside the invocation of privacy and restraint, Obama gave his plainest endorsement yet of “bulk collection,” a term he used more than once and authorized explicitly in Presidential Policy Directive 28. In a footnote, the directive defined the term to mean high-volume collection “without the use of discriminants.”
That is perhaps the central feature of “the golden age of signals intelligence,” which the NSA celebrates in top-secret documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. Obama for the first time put his own imprimatur on a collection philosophy that one of those documents summarized this way: “Order one of everything from the menu.”
As digital communications have multiplied, and NSA capabilities with them, the agency has shifted resources from surveillance of individual targets to the acquisition of communications on a planetary scale. That shift has fed the appetite of Big Data tools, which are designed to find unseen patterns and make connections that NSA analysts don’t know to look for.
“It’s noteworthy that the president addressed only the bulk collection of call records, but not any of the other bulk collection programs revealed by the media,” said Alexander Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU’s national security project. “That is a glaring omission. The president needs to embrace structural reforms that will protect us from all forms of bulk collection and that will make future overreach less likely.”